As the pigeon flies, St. Petersburg lies nearly 3,000 miles to the east of Funchal. By a long shot, the distance marks the farthest Zenit has had to travel in a European league in some time.
Still nothing in comparison with the trans-continental travel to Vladivostok in the Russian Premier League last season, the island of Madeira sits 500 some miles off the coast of Morocco. Small island, small stadium, and a few very small footballers make up the Club Desportivo Nacional.
Or just, CD Nacional.
Zenit St. Petersburg once more found themselves travelling to a far away nation to begin their conquest of the UEFA Europa League and this time, faced a very unknown foe. With a full compliment of Brazilians and Portuguese players, CD Nacional brought in a very different look than any team in the RPL.
Except for one problem. The match was not being broadcast on any television station in Russia. So Russian fans would have to endure watching Amkar Perm take on Fulham.
Zenit started the match well, and quite honestly should have scored in the sixth minute when both Szabolcs Huszti and Igor Semshov were robbed of an early goal. Absolutely no luck at all. A sparse crowd for the locals, under 4,000 oddly enough, for one of the biggest matches in club history.
But the ones that did show up, came in style, playing drums all through the evening. Semshov should have silenced them.
Now it was Nacional's turn, and Vyacheslav Malafeev was up to the task, blocking away several free kick attempts. Captain Aleksandr Anyukov takes a very questionable yellow card on a tackle from the Turkish referee. That's no time for a card.
Agony for Zenit. Nacional draws first blood in the 30th minute when Wellington delivers a nice corner kick. Goal for Luis Alberto. Terrific execution for the home team, not much to be done about that.
Only a few moments later, Zenit races upfield and Roman Shirokov has scored!
Oh wait. No he didn't. He was offsides apparently. And earns a yellow card for appealing the referee's decision. A wonderful ball from Huszti goes from ecstasy to horror in a matter of seconds.
But apparently, lightning does strike twice in Madeira. Just as Zenit are gaining some momentum, Nacional strikes at the speed of light.
Youngster Joao Aurelio bags his second of the young Portuguese Liga season, Malafeev had very little chance at stopping that. The Sky Blues are shot.
A few minutes before halftime, Konstantin Zyryanov motors forward, only to have the ball swiped by Leandro Salino. It's unlikely that Zyryanov even saw him, he looks every part the 15-year-old Brazilian kid. But he could not clear it out and Semshov locks and loads, firing a missile from just outside the box.
And finally, Zenit gets on the board, but that should not have been the first. A superb strike from a man who has been unstoppable over the last week, scoring goals at every level of competition.
Both sides head to the lockers after a very entertaining final 15 minutes of action. Would we see another comeback by Zenit, similar to the one in Perm only five days ago?
Half Time: CD Nacional 2, Zenit St. Petersburg 1.
Zenit begins the second half, aggressive in CD Nacional's defensive third, and earns a corner kick. Huszti delivers dangerously once more, but it is mishandled by the goalkeeper! Only Shirokov could bury it, but he misses the attempt, and a moment that looked so juicy all fizzled out sadly.
Where Zenit fails, CD Nacional sees an opportunity. And what was Shirokov's finest opportunity of the match, the Portuguese attack in numbers and overwhelm the defensive box. Malafeev makes the first save, but he has no chance of keeping the second one out.
Three-1 for Nacional, Rodrigo Silva deposits the lazy ball into a wide open net. More drums.
Nacional then makes a substitution, bringing on Nuno Pinto in favor of Nejc Pecnik, a very defensive change. But Zenit jumps all over the suddenly passive Portuguese side and look to respond immediately.
And it is! Igor Semshov, again! It pinballs around in the box, bounces off Hubocan and comes straight to Semshov, who has scored for the fifth time in his last three matches.
Now, on come Alessandro Rosina and Fatih Tekke, in favor of Huszti and Sergei Kornilenko. Huszti has been excellent, while Kornilenko, not so much.
But then came the moment that nobody outside of Madeira wanted to see. Nacional breaks away on a counter attack, lead by Ruben Micael, and his execution was flawless. Malafeev's was not. 4-2.
Matching now injury with insult, stout defensive midfielder Igor Denisov goes down with muscle problems. After being attended to, he tries to give it a go, but it's no good. The leg is in too much pain. He is now substituted off in favor of Pavel Ignatovich.
Twenty-year-old Ignatovich has never played in a match for Zenit's senior squad. Welcome to the Europa League, kid.
As the match continues, it is looking less and less likely that Zenit will be able to muster a third goal. Nacional is doing it's best to take time off the clock and nearly adds another themselves, but fails in doing so.
But in the 93rd minute, a Turkish hero may have just saved Zenit. And no, not the referee. Fatih Tekke takes a pass from Portuguese-native Fernando Meira and emphatically heads it past the keeper. A one-goal deficit is much easier to overcome than two. And three goals on the road is excellent in a two-legged playoff.
Full Time: CD Nacional 4, Zenit St. Petersburg 3.
1. Why was Tomas Hubocan starting the match? He had not seen action in months and was now expected to play at a very high defensive level.
2. Despite losing, Zenit knows what it must do now. Heading back to St. Petersburg for the second leg of the playoff, they must defeat Nacional by at least one goal. Scoring three times on the road should be enough to send them through in case of a tie.
3. Vyacheslav Malafeev has been anything but spectacular since returning from an injury. Kamil Contofalsky should get serious consideration to starting both against Lokomotiv Moscow on Sunday and the final leg with Nacional.
4. Alessandro Rosina coming off the bench is nice. But having him in the starting lineup would be nicer.
5. Zenit have now scored seven goals in two matches under Anatoliy Davydov. A preview of things to come? Quite possible.
6. Even though they have been filling the net, it's not because of Kornilenko. Zenit's lone striker has been isolated and unused in the matches he has played under Davydov. He needs the chances to have the ball and make things happen.
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